Sky Now TV Box review: It costs £10. You can't go wrong
To get more people using its no-contract streaming service, Sky is practically giving this box away. It's the cheapest way to get iPlayer on your TV.
Now TV is Sky's aggressive attempt to stay relevant, as more people rely on streaming services such as YouView, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video to watch TV. It's using the exclusive deals it has struck with the rights holders of big sport events, buzzworthy American dramas and starry Hollywood movies to bring it all to the UK for small monthly fees and no long-term contracts.
To get the service out there, Sky could have followed Netflix's example and made a version of its app for lots of different TVs and almost every streaming media box, but that would have been expensive and slow for the company. Instead, it's produced apps for a smaller range of devices, such as the iPad , Xbox 360 and some LG TVs. To plug the gap, it's also taken the bold step of selling its own streaming box incredibly cheaply: £10, plus a fee to watch the Now TV service.
Lots of channels (but no Netflix)
It's amazing value. The Now TV box is essentially a rebadged Roku LT , which means you get a very solid streamer with loads of apps. iPlayer is the headline act here: if you don't have a convenient way of watching BBC programmes, it's almost worth buying this box just for that. But other UK channels get a look in too, with apps from Channels 4 and 5, although there's no ITV.
One notable absence is Netflix. It's one of the only TV streamers I've seen that doesn't support the service. The box is technically capable of running it, but Sky has blocked it, as it doesn't want to give its arch-rival another route to its customers for such a small price. There's no support for Amazon Instant Video or YouTube either.
You do get apps such as Spotify, Vimeo and Vevo, however, and there's a CNET app if you want to catch up on our latest videos. Here's the full list of apps the box supports at the time of writing this review.
Easy to use
The interface is fairly simple. The box is controlled with an infrared remote, which you use to cycle through a straightforward grid of icons corresponding to the different apps. It works pretty much like every other streaming box out there at the moment, with the exception of Google's Chromecast , and the remote is decent.
To set it up, you need to sign up to Now TV online and hand over your credit card details. Monthly costs for the service are generally low, starting at £5 per month for the entertainment package, which includes plenty of good American TV, such as Game of Thrones, from studios such as HBO. It's £9 per month for movies, or £10 per day (yes, per day) for access to every Sky Sports channel. Sky announced a modest price rise at the start of May, but recanted shortly afterwards. You can expect these prices to go up by a pound or two at some stage, but there's currently no indication when that will be.
As with many other streaming services, there's no long-standing commitment, so once you've paid for a month, you could just cancel, keep the box and use it to access iPlayer, Channel 4, 5 and so on.
Sky's deals mean there's plenty to watch on the entertainment package (I have barely used Netflix in weeks) and Sky Sports is full of more sportiness than you could ever watch, even after BT taking some of its football matches away. Looking at Now TV's "what's new" listing for its Movie service, none of the films were available on Netflix, although most were available to buy or rent from Amazon and elsewhere.
Video quality from the box is decent for something this cheap. It outputs at 720p rather than the 1080p offered by the £30 Chromecast or the £50 Roku Streaming Stick , but for a £10 box you can hardly complain. The quality of each of the channels varies depending on how the service works: Netflix and iPlayer looked pretty much the same, to my eyes, as they always do.
Video quality of the Now TV service itself has improved since we first saw it, although it can be patchy. Like Netflix, the image starts off fuzzy and gets better as you watch a programme, although how good depends partly on your broadband speed.
For a pre-recorded programme like Mad Men, the quality is a long way from a Blu-ray disc, but that's true of all streaming services. Generally, I'd say what you get isn't quite as good as what you see from the very best HD broadcast channels, but it's much better than some of the blocky, pixelated channels that clutter Freeview. Incidentally, if you watch live TV, including the sports channels, the quality always drops to standard definition.
While better video quality is always welcome, reliability is even more important. In the six weeks I've been testing this box, the service has broken a lot. For something that's sold as a gateway to event TV, whether it's a football match or a must-see drama, this isn't good enough, even if it is cheap. Now TV offered refunds to people trying to watch the debut of Game of Thrones and those who experienced problems watching matches on the last day of the Premier League, and I have experienced other frustrating outages.
Ports-wise, there's just HDMI and an AV port that will allow the box to connect to a standard-def TV if you buy a £5 cable (providing the TV supports an NTSC signal over composite video). It connects to your router via Wi-Fi, but there's no Ethernet for a hard-wired connection if you encounter problems. I did mention this box only costs £10, right? There's an HDMI cable in the box, which means the package is cheaper than some standalone cables that are no better.
If you can afford an extra £40, go for the Roku Streaming Stick over this. Roughly the same size as a USB stick, it'll hide nicely behind your telly. The Now TV service will still work, plus you get some games, Netflix and YouTube (although frustratingly not Amazon Instant Video). Google's Chromecast is also an option at just £30, but there's no support for Now TV.
If £10 is all you have to spend though, this is a fantastic buy, especially if you don't already have an easy way to watch iPlayer on your TV. Whatever the reliability problems are of the service itself are, the Now TV box remains an amazing bargain.